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Baby & child.

Updated: 21 Feb 2022

How to express breast milk

Expressing breast milk can take some getting used to. Find out why it's worth it, different ways you can do it, and how to store breast milk.
Lisa Galliers
Baby being bottle fed

Why express breast milk?

There are several reasons to express milk, including:

  • If you aren’t able to breastfeed, your baby still gets the benefits of breast milk.
  • If your baby is ill or premature, he or she may not be able to feed directly from you at first.
  • It allows other parents or carers to be involved in feeding your baby.
  • Expressing milk can help to relieve uncomfortably full breasts.
  • Your baby can still be fed breast milk when you aren’t there – for example, if you go out or return to work.
  • If you're breastfeeding, expressing milk can help to maintain your milk supply.

Most popular reasons to express breast milk

  • Partner can help with feeds - 40%
  • To go out and leave milk - 38%
  • Top-up supply for general feeding - 31%

How to express milk

There are different options to expressing breast milk and the one you choose will come down to your individual preference. Expressing breast milk is a very subjective thing and will depend completely on your personal circumstances. Some mums prefer to use a breast pump and some like to hand express. The thing to remember is there’s no right or wrong way and each method will take a little while to get used to.

Hand expressing milk

Some mums find it easier to express milk by hand rather than by using a breast pump, while others find it tricky to get the hang of. Here are some tips from the NHS to help you get started:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water.
  • A gentle massage may help with milk let down.
  • Squeeze gently using your thumb and the rest of your fingers in a C-shape.
  • Gradually build up a rhythm – change breast or shift position when the milk flow slows down or stops.

Hand expressing can take time to master, so don’t be put off if it doesn’t quite work the first time.

Manual breast pumps

Alternatively, some mums choose to use a manual breast pump. The most basic, and cheapest, of these is a manual breast pump. This can help to make expressing milk a quicker and easier process for some mums. 

A manual breast pump is lightweight, low cost and quiet – but can be tiring to pump for long periods.

Discover the pros and cons of manual breast pumps in more detail.

Electric breast pumps

Electric breast pumps are generally more powerful and durable than manual breast pumps – but some may require access to a plug socket, or you’ll need a fair few rechargeable batteries to keep it going. Electric pumps are usually bigger than a manual breast pump, and can be noisier, but they are less work as the pump creates the vacuum for you, rather than you having to manually pump.

Find out exactly how an electric breast pump works, and see if it’s the right choice for you.

Hospital-grade breast pumps

Hospital-grade breast pumps from companies, such as Medela or Ameda, are larger and more powerful machines. If you have to stay in hospital for longer than usual, or your baby is premature, you may use one while you’re there.

Once you're home, you can hire a hospital-grade breast pump on a monthly basis from a number of places such as a local pharmacy, the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) or a UK parenting charity. You should also be able to find a list of local providers online.

Breast pump use while feeding

  • 51% never use a breast pump while feeding
  • 24% occasionally use a breast pump while feeding 
  • 18% sometimes use a breast pump while feeding
  • 7% use a breast pump every time they feed

Frequency of using breast pump at the same time as breast feeding, based on a Which? survey of 1008 parents in January 2018 who have used a breast pump in the last five years.

Does expressing milk hurt?

Expressing or pumping breast milk shouldn't be painful, but it can be uncomfortable at first until you get used to the feeling. Some women find expressing milk helps to relieve the discomfort caused by overly full breasts. If you do experience any pain on your nipple when expressing using a breast pump, check that you're using the right size of breast shield, so it’s not excessively pulling on the delicate area around where you’ll pump.

Your midwife or health visitor should be able to help you with breastfeeding and expressing advice, other places for help include the NCT and specialist breastfeeding networks such as La Leche League. You can also call the National Breastfeeding Helpline on 0300 100 0212 between 09:30 and 21:30 daily.

How should I store breast milk?

Breast milk can be expressed in advance and then stored in a fridge or in a freezer. Any collection container should be sterilised thoroughly before use, and once the milk has been expressed it should be transferred to the fridge or freezer as soon as possible.

The NHS and NCT say breast milk is safe for up to five days, if stored in a fridge at less than 4°C, or three days at a slightly higher temperature (or if you're unsure of the temperature of the fridge). Breast milk can be frozen for up to two weeks in the freezer compartment of a fridge, or six months in a freezer at minus 18°C.

The NHS advise that you can also carry breast milk that’s been cooled in the fridge for up to 24 hours in a cool bag with ice packs.

Do not refreeze defrosted breast milk.

Many breast pumps come with guides to milk storage in their instructions. For more information on expressing, storing and defrosting frozen breast milk, visit the NCT website or the NHS expressing breast milk guide.

*Survey of 1,008 mums in January 2018

Coronavirus update

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) has said there is no evidence that the coronavirus can be carried in breastmilk. Mothers with suspected or confirmed coronavirus can continue to breastfeed.  

The RCOG says that the main risk of breastfeeding is the close contact between mother and baby, which could lead to infection through airborne droplets. They recommend discussing the risks and benefits of breastfeeding with your family and maternity team.

If you choose to breastfeed your baby, the following precautions are recommended:

  • Wash your hands before touching your baby, breast pump or bottles
  • Try and avoid coughing or sneezing on your baby while feeding at the breast
  • Consider wearing a face mask while breastfeeding, if available
  • Follow recommendations for pump cleaning after each use
  • Consider asking someone who is well to feed expressed breast milk to your baby
  • Sterilise all feeding equipment according to NHS guidelines
  • If you are expressing milk in hospital, a dedicated breast pump should be used

Content last updated 23/03/2020. Please check out Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists for any more recent updates.